A digital nomad is someone who earns their living by working from various locations of their choosing, rather than a fixed location, keeping in contact with their employer or customers by the internet. With the prospect of living and working in whichever part of the world takes your fancy, it is little wonder why interest in this type of work has increased drastically since the 2010s. However, this lifestyle is not appropriate for everybody.
Much of the work involved is creative, such as writing articles or computer programs, or designing various things; see travel writing for one obvious possibility.
There are other possibilities. Some people run Internet businesses as nomads, and others do things like administering web sites remotely. Some people living abroad run a YouTube channel or a web site about the region they are in, and make money from advertising there. Some people teach via the net; Teaching English is one possibility. If you are an expert in some field, remote consulting may be possible.
A few people working for large companies have gone from works-on-site to works-at-home and on to works-on-the-road; going through this progression appears to be the only way to get a full-benefits employee position with a major firm as a nomad. These companies may also have work for contractors or consultants who are not employees, and some also have desirable but non-nomadic posts abroad for employees.
- See also: Computers
Consider what internet access, phone service, travel insurance, and perhaps health insurance, you will need. Should you join a frequent flyer program or a hotel chain loyalty program? Or get a credit card that offers benefits for travel?
Our articles on retiring aboard and working abroad discuss banking arrangements, and that on money covers funds transfer issues. However, the problems are more complex for a nomad who may work in several countries and may have clients in several others, and in some countries may not be allowed to have a bank account because he or she is not a long-term resident. You may need to set up an additional bank account, or an account on an online service such as PayPal, to make payment convenient for clients.
Most nomads will need a good laptop computer, though advising on what to use is beyond the scope of a travel guide. Some people can work on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, and some use remote desktop applications such as Parsec or VNC. It is a good idea to review your computer and network security together with an expert before setting out. Do you need a VPN for secure communication? Should you encrypt some or all of your disks (including USB sticks) so that private data is not revealed if the device is stolen? Still make sure that your work doesn't get lost if you lose your password.
Some sort of backup device is also more-or-less essential, and many IT professionals prefer to have at least two backups for important data. The commonest choice for local backups is a USB drive. Keep it somewhere other than the laptop bag so one disaster is not likely to destroy both data and backup.
For many nomads it will be worthwhile to set up a (virtual) server in your home country or a third country before hitting the road. An important benefit is off-site backup for your portable machine; it is much easier and much safer to have a maintained server take and store regular backups than to try to handle the backups locally. There can be other benefits as well; see Internet access for a discussion.
There will be a trade-off between working on a server through a remote desktop or web interface or working locally. In the former case, the work will at all times be in a secure environment, in the latter, the work will be available also during internet failures. Unless you work from somewhere with dependable internet connections, you will probably want to regularly synchronise between your local device and the server (which in turn takes regular backups). Make sure you do this systematically according to a thought-through schedule, or you'll find that some critical file is missing when you need it, or that your last sync was from days ago when a storm closes down the internet for a week. You could set up an automatic background job that syncs all essential folders on a daily basis (perhaps all changes except caches etc.). Some cloud services by default configure your computer to do this if you run their installation scripts on it.
While digital nomads are travelling, or spending time in places they want to visit, they still work. And to do the same work, you are probably doing as long hours as you would in the headquarters office – or longer, because you have to make up for lacking infrastructure and support, and take different time zones into account. And you have to sleep, make your food, handle the laundry etc. in a less familiar place than at home, often with more primitive facilities. You can of course eat out and use laundry services, especially in a low income country, but also that can become daunting – and if you intended to spend less to be able to work less (or with not so well paid work), your budget may be tight.
Another aspect is that while you can keep contact with people back home, and meet a lot of interesting people, really making friends, and keeping your acquaintances, can be hard when you are on the move.
Depending on where you go, Internet connections may be slow or unreliable. Often such problems can be solved by using a different cafe, or moving to a different hotel or even another town. If not, a satellite Internet service may be an alternative, but they are often expensive.
In some places, electricity may also be unreliable. Often this will not interrupt work since a laptop, tablet or smartphone can run for some time on its batteries and the better hotels and cafes have generators. However in such places it is a good idea to use a surge protector to reduce risk of damage to your devices.
Check visa policies carefully. If you are on a tourist visa, what are you allowed to do? How long can you stay? Where do you get your next visa? In some countries you need a work visa, even to work online. If you are eligible for a working holiday visa or a retirement visa, those may be preferable to a tourist visa.
Many countries now offer visas specifically for remote workers, a category that includes nomads; Wikipedia has a list. Most digital nomads tend to come from richer countries, as passports of these countries allow visa-free travel to a wider variety of places than the passports of developing nations do.
- See also: Second homes
It is possible to travel with your housing, living in a mobile home, on your own boat, or on a cruise ship, but getting adequate Internet access may be a problem. Also, on some ferries that take cars, getting on with a mobile home may be a hassle (such as needing to book weeks in advance), and shipping longer distances may be very expensive.
Our articles on working abroad and retiring abroad discuss housing, but they focus on long-term stays. Most nomads will either stay in hotels or use some service like AirBNB for short-term rentals. This is one reason nomads often prefer lower-cost countries; living in hotels and eating in restaurants can be painfully expensive elsewhere. See Retiring abroad/Table for some cost comparisons. However, in bigger cities there may be rental businesses targeting professional short term visitors, such as an expert staying days, weeks or a few months to fix a problem or to train locals to handle new equipment. These may fulfil most needs of a digital nomad.
There are some businesses particularly targeting digital nomads:
- WeWork offer shared office space, anything from a desk (with or without computer) to an office for a small company. As of November 2021, they have over 800 locations. By no means all users are nomads; many companies now put employees in these places rather than running their own facilities, but the services are also available for nomads.
- Outsite are more like a chain of resorts for digital nomads; they provide living space as well as office space and have facilities in interesting locations such as Bali.
- There is a 25-meter (82-foot) sailing catamaran called Coboat[dead link], a sort of cruise ship for digital nomads. She set out from Southeast Asia in late 2015; plans call for her to circumnavigate the world, travelling east-to-west and passing through both the Suez and Panama canals. As of early 2023 she has been in the Caribbean for about two years and has not yet announced a move into the Pacific.
- Life at Sea cruises have a vessel due to set off from Istanbul in November 2023 and spend three years circumnavigating the globe. Cost is $30,000 a year.
There are also businesses not targeted at digital nomads, that rent office space to other businesses. The locations are usually in business districts of cities, and they may not rent to private persons, but some might have no problem in having you as their customer.
- See Medical tourism for discussion of drug costs and availability.
As for nearly all long-term travel, it is a good idea to have a health checkup before setting out. See your doctor, preferably at least eight weeks before you leave so there is time to get any vaccinations you need. Also check whether you need other precautions such as anti-malaria pills.
COVID-19 brought travel restrictions; as of mid-2023 they have been relaxed in many places, but it does not look as though they will be completely gone anytime soon. In particular, unvaccinated people are not admitted to some countries and not allowed aboard some transport – nearly all cruise ships, many airlines, and some buses or trains. See the linked article for more detailed discussion.
If you are on a long-term medication, it is usually a good idea to bring a supply with you. Carry a copy of your prescription, and for some destinations (e.g. China) try to get one with an official-looking stamp on it (perhaps from a hospital?) since customs officials will expect that. Beware that drug laws vary between countries and some medicines that are legal in one place – especially opiate pain killers or cannabis – might be seized at the border or even get you arrested somewhere else.
With long hours in an exciting but unfamiliar environment, it is easy to forget about important routines. Healthy food and exercise are as important as at home. If you don't rent office space, creating an ergonomic work environment may be a challenge. Pay attention to any signs of beginning strain injury. Also know your social needs and issues. Regularly take some time to check on your situation.
There are a number of resources for digital nomads:
- Online forums include Nomad list, Digital Nomad Forum and a Reddit board
- There are recruitment sites for jobs that can be done remotely, anywhere with good internet service. Crossover for Work specializes in recruiting for remote jobs. Remote OK and Himalayas work as aggregators that collect jobs from many recruitment sites, then select only the ones that can be done remotely. The travel guide site Atlas and Boots also has a remote jobs section.
- Groups such as Hacker Paradise and Remote Year organize trips for groups of digital nomads.
- Nomad City have an annual conference on Gran Canaria which brings a few hundred nomads together.
- Digital Nomad Academy is a site with a fee that offers training courses, mainly for people who want to become nomadic entrepreneurs.